Photo by Tom Bamberger
Life was a struggle for Wallace Havens. He worked days inseminating cattle for a breeding company, nights manning a motel front desk. His wife turned the family home into a day care center. Money was tight. Then, Havens invented a lubricant used in breeding dairy cattle and put his wife and kids to work bottling it at the kitchen table. Soon, they’d saved enough to buy a 120-acre farm in Kingston, Wis., a rural enclave 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
Havens began raising hedgehogs and miniature donkeys. He tried – and failed – to cross an Asian leopard with a Bengal tiger. Then he hit on the mother lode: breeding dogs. His first experiment was crossing a cocker spaniel with a poodle, creating a “cockapoo.” It had the mellow personality of a cocker spaniel, but the nonshedding coat of a poodle. It became an instant hit.
Havens kept experimenting. He tried crossing a Lhasa apso with a cocker spaniel, then a Shar-Pei with a basset hound. Both attempts produced offspring so ugly that no pet store wanted them. But his goldendoodles (a golden retriever/poodle mix invented by another breeder) commanded $1,500 a puppy.
By 1987, more than a decade after getting into puppy breeding, Havens began marketing puggles, a pug/beagle cross, as the ideal apartment-sized dog without the girlish fru-fruness of most small breeds. When Hollywood stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Uma Thurman posed with their puggles in the late 1990s, the dog took New York’s upper class by storm.
By 2005, Havens was producing 35 hybrids, and his Puppy Haven Kennel was one of nation’s largest commercial dog-breeding operations, part of a $14 billion-a-year American industry turned upside down by the craze for “designer dogs.” They were now fetching up to $3,000 – often more than purebreds – and Havens was selling 3,000 and 4,000 puppies a year to clients like Sylvester Stallone and “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, and to chi-chi pet stores in Florida, California and Chicago.
Marie Claire magazine named one of Havens’ hybrid inventions, the miniature St. Bernard, one of the most desirable Christmas gifts of the year. The Wall Street Journal profiled him in a page-one feature. CBS interviewed him on “Sunday Morning.” By February 2007, you couldn’t “swing a dead cat in New York without hitting a puggle,” The New York Times Magazine raved in an article about hybrid dogs. The story described Havens as both the “inventor” of the puggle and “a strange kind of Noah” with a boatful of pups in rural Wisconsin.
But there was a dark side to the designer dog craze: “ramped-up production at inhumane, large-scale ‘puppy mills,’ ” as the Times article noted. It didn’t portray Havens as part of this problem, but he clearly was.
By then, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector had written up Havens for leaving hundreds of dogs in wet and freezing conditions, for excessively matted dogs lacking proper grooming, and sick and injured ones without veterinary care. Havens kept his puppies in wire-floored cages, an inspector noted, where their paws slipped through the openings and became injured and infected.
In August 2006, the American Kennel Club banned Havens from registering dogs with the organization for 10 years – the harshest penalty it hands down. The Humane Society of the United States added Havens to its “Hall of Shame.” This, in turn, brought media attention: WTMJ-TV news did a hidden-camera investigation showing how a Havens puppy had its paw chewed off by an overstressed mother forced to repeatedly breed.
In time, Havens’ style changed. He sold his entire breeding stock to the Wisconsin Humane Society and became a reformer. He began to be portrayed as a kind of folk hero, though he had helped build and protect a growing industry of puppy mills.
Many mills operate without regard for sound breeding practices or the dogs’ physical and emotional health. The result is often sick puppies and “breeder” dogs that live a miserable existence in horrific conditions. The puppy mills often operate in near-secret, part of an underground economy, and pay no taxes. They defraud consumers, who are left with costly veterinary bills when they unwittingly buy badly bred dogs and suffer considerable emotional heartache.
Some of the worst puppy mills are operated by Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Amish and Mennonites, many of whom have moved to Wisconsin because state regulations are much laxer here. “Pennsylvania used to be the puppy mill capital of the world,” says Carol Sumbry of the Elmbrook Humane Society. “But we have pretty much rolled out the welcome mat for them here in Wisconsin.”
It was Havens who helped roll out the mat. As founder and president of the Wisconsin Professional Pet Breeders Association, he mentored 50 Amish and Mennonite farmers, many transplants from Pennsylvania’s notorious Lancaster County. His group also fought legislation that would raise standards for commercial breeders.
“Wisconsin is like the Wild West for puppy mills. There are no laws,” says Jana Kohl, author of a new book on puppy mills titled A Rare Breed of Love.
Dr. Yvonne Bellay, the state’s highest-ranking veterinarian, told the legislature last year that “Wisconsin is one of the few states without any laws regulating large-scale dog-breeding operations that sell directly to consumers.”
As a result, the state’s puppy mill industry is booming. The number of commercial dog-breeding operations in Wisconsin that sell to middlemen increased 300 percent between 1999 and 2007, according to a legislative task force. The state’s Fiscal Bureau estimates there are 500 Wisconsin dog-breeding operations selling 50 or more dogs a year, yet federal records show only 68 of them are subject to USDA licensing.
Remarkably, in a state known for its strict animal husbandry standards for dairy farmers, attempts to regulate dog breeders have gone nowhere. For almost 10 years, advocates for the humane
treatment of animals have pushed for legislation, only to face fierce opposition from high-powered lobbyists and even the puppy lovers of the Dog Federation of Wisconsin. Ultimately, both Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and his Democratic successor, Gov. Jim Doyle, have vetoed reform bills. All of which has helped encourage ever more puppy millers from Pennsylvania to move here.
Lancaster County is a mostly rural area in eastern Pennsylvania just 90 miles from Philadelphia. Its picturesque Amish farm country was made famous by the 1985 Harrison Ford film Witness, but the county also has a reputation as the “puppy mill capital of the United States.” Its dog breeders are almost entirely Amish or Mennonites, reports a 2005 article in the Lancaster Sunday News.
According to Libby Williams, the founder of New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, the Amish and Mennonites were originally dairy farmers who needed a second income when milk prices dropped. At a November 1981 meeting attended by several hundred of these farmers, they learned they could raise and sell puppies with little or no overhead and make a fortune.
By the mid-1990s, Lancaster had the largest concentration of wholesale dog breeders in the country. Total 1996 sales approached $5 million. By 2004, the county produced over 200,000 dogs a year, but Lancaster County was changing.
The Mennonites and Amish are members of Christian fellowships that “value simplicity, community, separation from the world and separation of church and state,” says Donald B. Kraybill, a senior fellow at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College and a national expert on these plain sect groups.
But urban sprawl and post-Witness “Amish Country” tourism were ending the isolation of Lancaster County. With more traffic came more scrutiny and several highly publicized cases of canines kept in deplorable conditions. One puppy mill bust, filmed by the television show “Animal Cops,” showed a filthy farm with more than 300 dogs silenced by the Amish farmer who “de-barked” them by pushing a pipe down their throats to rupture their vocal cords.
This triggered protests involving celebrity dog lovers like The Exorcist star Linda Blair. The state increased its inspections and there were more horror stories. “The public perception of the Amish and Mennonites and their peaceful, quiet way of life is a long way from the reality of these puppy mills,” says Williams.
The increase in scrutiny helped provoke an exodus of the farmers from Lancaster County. By the late-1990s, Wisconsin had become a prime destination. It already had small Amish and Mennonite settlements, plenty of abandoned dairy farms, and a ready market of rural cheesemakers for Amish farmers who still shipped their product in old-fashioned milk cans. Wisconsin was also known for a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the state couldn’t force the Amish to send their children to high school. If any state seemed like it would be welcoming to the plain sect people, it was Wisconsin.
By 2004, The Washington Post took note of “whole communities from Lancaster … relocating to Wisconsin, where land is two to three times as cheap and the influences of modern society are less pressing.”
Of more than two dozen U.S. affiliations of Amish and Mennonites, two of the most traditional sects – the Old Order Amish and Groffdale Conference or “Horse and Buggy” Mennonites – migrated to Wisconsin, says Kraybill. So did one of the sects most receptive to modern technology, the New Order Amish.
The Horse and Buggy Mennonites settled in Clark County, where they use steel-wheeled tractors to farm. The metal wheels make them impractical for long distances, something that might undermine the community by encouraging travel and exposing church members to outsiders.
Between 1992 and 2008, Wisconsin’s Amish population grew 117 percent to 15,525. Today, only Pennsylvania and Ohio have more Amish settlements. “Wisconsin was sort of a hot spot for immigration,” says Kraybill.
Much of the migration was to rural areas just northeast and southeast of Eau Claire in Clark, Taylor and Chippewa counties, and most of the immigrants began to operate dairy farms. In 2004, UW-Stevens Point researcher John A. Cross found that 80 percent of Wisconsin farmers with traditional Amish and Mennonite surnames operated dairy farms. By 2012, he predicted, they will make up 15 percent of the state’s milk producers.
As in Lancaster County, many of these Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers also breed dogs as a side crop. Others breed puppies as their main business, with several family members raising a “puppy crop.” Milwaukee Magazine compared federal and state records and found more than 40 percent of the state’s USDA-licensed wholesale dog breeders also hold a milk producer’s license.
Wisconsin’s dog-breeding industry is now centered in Clark and Chippewa counties, which host more than half of the state’s USDA-licensed dog breeders. But experts say many others are unlicensed and keep to themselves. The central artery for the breeders is state Highway 29 with its hamlets of Stanley, Withee and Thorp.
“Dog breeding is a cash crop for many people along the Highway 29 corridor, and most of them are Mennonite,” says Clark County Humane Society Executive Director Chuck Wegner. (Those who aren’t Amish or Mennonite are often called the “English” by the plain sect people.) “They produce as many puppies as they can, for as little money as possible. Poor nutrition, veterinary neglect and inbreeding are rampant.”
The Amish and Mennonites don’t think of animals as pets, says Steve M. Nolt, an expert on their culture and a scholar at Indiana’s Goshen College. “They think of them as work animals. Not exactly a commodity, but not as a member of the family in the way most Americans think of pets. They would not go to any means necessary to cure or save an animal’s life.”
“I don’t think the Amish mean to be doing cruel things to these animals,” says Marti Houge, who runs a rescue shelter for dogs in Columbus, Wis. “They just look at their dogs as another form of livestock to make money off of.”
Mennonite and Amish breeders contact Houge when they want to get rid of a dog. Houge typically spends $500 to $600 in veterinary bills on dogs she rescues and a year socializing them before they can be placed in a home – if ever.
She’s been inside seven or eight plain sect breeding operations and has retrieved dogs with anaplasmosis (a Lyme-like disease), uncut toenails curled like elbow macaroni, crooked legs from lives spent in cages shorter than they are and jaws eaten away by infection.
Houge says she got a call to pick up an older Bichon from an Amish farm near Pardeeville last winter. She found the breeder’s dogs in a chicken coop without heat or electricity, and in cages stacked two and three high. Each dog’s access to the outside was a 2-by-3-foot space “like a birdcage,” and the dogs were so filthy and unkempt, “you couldn’t tell one breed from another,” she says.
More startling still was “an idyllic-looking little Amish farm,” as Houge recalls it, where all the dogs were kept inside a windowless barn. “There was no electricity, no fresh air, no kennel runs. They live their entire lives in that dark barn, and when the farmer went in there, the barking sounded almost like screams. Like something from hell.”
Auctioneer Kenneth Z. Stauffer is in his full-salesman mode, bellowing from a perch overlooking a crowd peppered with the black-felt bowlers of Mennonite breeders and salted with pale-straw Amish hats. The item for sale is a 3-year-old Pekingese that’s propped on the table by a farm boy in jeans and suspenders who pivots the dog sideways, extending its tail with his hand.
“Proven breeder,” the auction catalog reads, failing to note the dog’s serious underbite, something that would keep a conscientious breeder from breeding her.
“This one’s in heat today,” the auctioneer effuses. “Take her home and breed her!” The bidding begins. “Do I hear 300? 300! Do I hear 350?” He prods the crowd that rings his pulpit and rises up a wall of bleachers across a cavernous room.
Another bidder bites.
“I’ve got 350. Do I hear 4?” At $450, Stauffer brings the gavel down. The dog with the underbite that had belonged to one Mennonite breeder is sold to another. “You’re done,” Stauffer nudges the dog’s handler, and another strong-jawed Mennonite boy takes his place with a 3-year-old male Pekingese, another “proven breeder.”
Auctions like this have been held twice a year since 2006 at Horst Stables in Thorp, Wis. Dog auctions are illegal in Lancaster County, Pa., the former home of Stauffer and his employer, auction company owner Leon Z. Horst. But here, they provide a wholesale outlet for breeders. For the Amish and Mennonites, they are also family outings with grandma and all the kids. For outsiders, they offer a rare glimpse inside an insular culture.
Some dogs are auctioned to breeders looking to increase their stock of a particular breed. Some to individuals looking for pets. Some are sold to “brokers” – wholesalers who buy in bulk and then sell to pet stores or over the Internet. Ironically, most of the auctioned dogs are actually bought by humane societies and rescue groups looking to save poorly bred puppies and mother dogs that have bred litters until exhaustion.
At this auction last fall, representatives of at least a dozen rescue groups donned baseball caps – so they wouldn’t accidentally bid against each other – and bought as many dogs as they could afford to keep them from going to another puppy mill. In the end, two-thirds of the Thorp dogs were sold to rescuers.
Most puppies produced by Wisconsin’s Mennonite and Amish breeders aren’t auctioned. They’re sold directly to brokers, just as in Lancaster County. They are the key link to puppy mills: Humane Society officials say 90 percent of pet shop dogs come from brokers who have bought them from puppy mills (though pet shops deny this). H&H Hunte Corp., the country’s largest puppy broker and the first to come into north-central Wisconsin, uses temperature-controlled semitrailers filled with cages to pick up puppies.
Other brokers include Iowa’s Oleo Acres, a woman named Penny Rich from Gurnee, Ill., and another woman from Madison who sells puppies out of her basement. All three “just stick ’um in little boxes in a van,” Mennonite breeder Leah Martin told Frank Schemberger, an undercover investigator for the The Wisconsin Puppy Mills Project, Inc. Schemberger used a hidden camera to record such moments, as the Amish and Mennonites don’t like to be photographed.
Big brokers, however, have certain standards. A sick puppy won’t survive a long haul, and pet shops don’t take homely dogs, so both end up getting sold at dog auctions and become breeders of the next generation of dogs. The menagerie for sale at this auction included two black puggles with hernias, a French bulldog born with one ear, a 3-month-old Yorkshire terrier with only one testicle and a badly bow-legged bulldog.
Terri Woodcock, head of the Wisconsin Retired Breeders Rescue based in Augusta, Wis., has seen auction sales of boxers with brucellosis (a highly contagious, often fatal disease that can spread to humans), dogs with jaws half-rotted away, and a 7-month-old Chihuahua so emotionally traumatized that seven months later, “it still poops or pukes whenever it sees a person,” says Woodcock, who bought the dog.
To Humane Society activist Wegner, the saddest cases he’s seen at the auctions are spent breeders. “These are dogs that, after six years of living in a windowless, lightless barn, just give up. They no longer have any hope in their eyes. I know what it takes to break a dog’s spirit, and these dogs have been through hell.”
The Amish and Mennonite sellers at the auction exhibited varying degrees of concern for their stock. A 30-something Amish man with a bushy black beard separated his goldendoodle and Teddy bear (Shih Tzu/Bichon) pups from the other dogs, brushed them and fluffed their coats. Then he made sure that all of his dogs had water – they were the only ones in the auction that did.
A middle-aged Mennonite man represented the opposite extreme. One breeder warned him a Yorkie he was selling was “real grey. It’s going to go hypoglycemic if you don’t get some honey into it quick,” she said.
Hypoglycemia “must be treated as an emergency or a puppy’s condition will deteriorate rapidly,” according to the book Dog Care. “The puppy’s body must have sugar as quickly as possible. Untreated, it can cause coma, seizures, brain damage and death.”
But when the observer left, the breeder grumbled she’d cost him a sale, then he walked away, too. Later, one of the farm boys propped up the lethargic puppy, and Stauffer sold it.
Emily Gray is a 24-year-old Milwaukee resident who heard about Carol’s Canines from one of her East Side neighbors. Its Web site promised purebred puppies that conformed to breed standards and designer dogs with “exceptional temperaments.” But the biggest selling point was the photo gallery of irresistible puppies.
Gray called to inquire. A woman named Sue answered and invited Gray to her home in East Troy. She said some of the puppies Gray saw on the Web site were “still with their mothers and not ready yet” and told Gray she could only see five dogs.
Gray was ushered into Sue’s living room while she went to the basement to get the puppies. “It seemed odd,” Gray says now. “I was afraid it might be a puppy mill.” But like thousands of others, she forgot her concerns when she saw the puppies.
Gray fell for a 10-week-old female schnoodle (schnauzer/poodle mix). “She put out her arms and legs like Superman when we picked her up,” Gray gushes. The pup’s shyness should have set off warning bells, but it charmed her, and she paid $476 for the dog that she named Penny. Under the sales contract, Gray had three days to return Penny if her vet found something seriously wrong.
Penny seemed healthy. “But the vet said Penny had had a lot more shots than they’re used to seeing,” says Gray. Today, at 18 months, Penny has “really bad, out-of-control allergies even on medication, which she will have to take the rest of her life,” Gray says. She scratches her ears until they bleed and develops “hot spots” where she chews off her fur.
Her kneecaps move in and out of place – a hereditary defect avoided by careful breeding – as well as chronic runny eyes and a benign tumor on her back. Gray had to hire an animal behaviorist to help train Penny. The trainer attributed Penny’s problems to being bred in a puppy mill.
Eilene Ribbens is the founder of The Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project (nowisconsinpuppymills.com), and she calls Carol’s Canines “a known front for puppy mills.”
Carol’s Canine’s operates a store at 9501 W. Greenfield Ave., but it is only open on weekends. During the week, it sells dogs out of a home to customers like Emily that are attracted by its Web site. When Milwaukee Magazine visited the store, we found 24 puppies in clean cages with comfortable bedding. Manager Sue Anderson denied relying on puppy mills and said her dogs come from seven north-central Wisconsin breeders.
One big national chain is Petland, which has three pet shops in Wisconsin. A recent study by the U.S. Humane Society found that Petland is “the nation’s largest retail supporter of puppy mills.”
At the Petland store on Silvernail Road in Pewaukee, we found more than a dozen puppies for sale. A new shipment had just arrived “on the truck,” the clerk said. Many Petland stores rely on Hunte Corp., and two Mennonite breeders told undercover investigator Schemberger that they sold puppies to Hunte. But the Petland clerk said her dogs come from Iowa or Minnesota.
Because brokers buy from mills just once a month, they often buy pups when they are 5 or 6 weeks old, before the 8 weeks puppies need to learn valuable lessons from their mothers and litter mates – like bite inhibition. “When they leave the mother too soon, they have social issues, problems with house-training, fearfulness – not all dogs bite because they’re aggressive. With many, it’s fear,” says Oconomowoc veterinarian John Hallett.
Linda Bliefernicht, who teaches puppy-training classes at The Hallett Veterinary Clinic in Oconomowoc, recalls the case of a pug named Mario. “He went into a seizure from fear when someone carried him. He’d also get very aggressive. That’s unusual for a pug, but it was the result of his life in a mill and then a pet shop,” she says.
Puppy mill dogs often have emotional disorders – including a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder – that are even worse than their physical problems. “You get them home and you see flight, fright, or they just freeze,” Bliefernicht says. “People see that and say, ‘Someone was mean to him,’ but it may just be that he’s never been exposed to any people.”
Besides those bought from stores and Internet sites, puppy mill dogs are also sold to unwitting consumers at the West Allis Farmers Market, Seven Mile Fair and St. Martin’s Festival, says Wisconsin Humane Society Executive Director Victoria Wellens.
“I would say virtually all pet store puppies come from puppy mills,” says Kathleen Summers, who is deputy director of the U.S. Humane Society’s Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. “We get hundreds of calls every year from people who have purchased sick puppies from pet stores. About 20 percent report the puppy died shortly after purchase.”
The road to Puppy Haven leads off a county trunk in Kingston, Wis., past a bucolic farmstead where an Amish farmer uses a horse and plow. Puppy Haven had long been run by Wallace Havens, the superstar of designer dogs who had now decided to sell his entire operation to the Wisconsin Humane Society.
As the WHS rescue van approached Puppy Haven last July, it encountered barking dogs in chain-link runs, kennel after feces-littered kennel. Doggie doors clanged as frenzied canines scurried about.
A pregnant schnauzer in cage 131 hobbled on a gimpy leg, a cavalier King Charles spaniel in cage 137 appeared to have a large tumor, or perhaps just a badly gnarled coat. A 3-year-old beagle, a card attached to her kennel noted, had already produced four puggle litters – 22 puppies – and was pregnant again. A homely black mutt with the body of a wiener dog and the too-big head of a Scottie – perhaps another Havens experiment – spun in insane circles. It was easy to see why animal advocates call such operations concentration camps for dogs.
For years, says Woodcock, head of the Wisconsin Retired Breeders Rescue, she would pick up Havens’ burned-out 5- and 6-year-old breeders. That is, until the local Amish and Mennonite farmers started paying $50 a dog to get a few more litters out of them. After that, Woodcock says, she had to pay $50, too – “and always in cash.”
Over the years, Woodcock says, Havens sold her a starving dachshund pup with a swollen belly – separated from its mother too young, it had no teeth to chew dry food; a goldendoodle puppy whose bowed legs straightened with two weeks of quality feed; and a Lhasa apso/Shih Tzu mix with paralyzed back legs. Three puppies from Havens died after Woodcock got them to her vet, she recalls: They had giardia, canine herpes and a strain of salmonella associated with cows.
“Almost every one of Wallace’s dogs ended up toothless because of the crap they fed them. It was the cheapest stuff he could find,” she says.
On one visit, Woodcock witnessed one of Havens’ Amish employees kicking a cowering dog into the corner of a chain-link fence. Others, she says, “cut the puppies out of pregnant dogs” and threw the mothers in a ditch with other dead dogs. “All puppy mill dogs are scared, but the most frightened are from Amish and Mennonite breeders,” Woodcock says, “and when Wallace had the Amish working for him, his dogs were terrified, too.”
Some animal activists, like those at the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha, argue that the rescue of these dogs just helps millers by opening up cages for new dogs to be exploited. But the Wisconsin Humane Society defends the practice. “It’s a way to humanely treat at least some mill dogs,” says Wellens.
In 2004, the WHS agreed to take 75 of Havens’ dogs. By 2008, Havens was eager to retire and offered to sell his entire operation. Thus, the rescue van’s trip to Puppy Haven last July.
This would be the biggest rescue in history by any U.S. animal welfare organization. The state’s other humane societies immediately condemned it. But the deal was made.
Havens offered to sell Puppy Haven for $2.4 million. Ultimately, he and the WHS settled on a sales price with “a substantial discount,” says Wellens. Neither side will disclose the actual amount.
“Most of the adult dogs had multiple conditions, with many resulting from allowing dogs with genetic defects to be bred over and over – including knee, eye and hernia problems,” says WHS veterinarian Randall Zeman. “There were quite a few with intestinal parasites and ear problems that were also the result of neglect … [and dogs with] severe dental problems with their teeth literally rotting out of their mouths.”
By late October, 75 percent of Havens’ 1,630 dogs had been adopted. But it wasn’t easy. Many older mill dogs have never walked on solid ground, worn a leash or been petted. “Some of the puppy mill dogs will make wonderful pets; others never will,” says Debby Lewis, president of the Wisconsin Federated Humane Societies, Inc.
Wisconsin is home to nearly 200 dog rescue groups, ranging from large kennels to networks of foster homes. Some are part of an underground railroad transporting dogs from shelters in the South with “96 percent kill rates,” says Wellens.
But rescue groups are also unregulated, and some are actually fronts for brokers looking to cash in on the “rescued” dogs.
The USDA does have some requirements for dog breeders who sell to brokers, but Cynthia Neis, the regional USDA representative, says the law she enforces is toothless. “I can’t even officially take dogs off the auction list … I can only say, ‘I will write you up,’ ” she says.
The U.S. Humane Society says USDA records show many federally licensed breeders get away with repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Violators are rarely fined. Few have their licenses suspended. And the law, last updated in 1970, is ill-suited for the Internet age and mass producers of designer dogs. But Wisconsin animal advocates say Neis is also part of the problem because she’s “too friendly” with breeders.
Schemberger’s hidden-camera investigations have captured three Mennonite breeders saying Neis counseled them not to let anyone inside their barns. The idea is to keep out Humane Society representatives, says one Mennonite.
“If the legislature knew what was going on behind those doors, there would be legislation so fast,” says Clark County’s Wegner.
Asked about her relationships with those she regulates, Neis says, “You can come in and bang heads together or you can be approachable, and that way, I have people call me and ask ‘Can I do this or that?’ We’re administrative law. All I can say is ‘Here’s an administrative ticket for $75.’ ”
In her nine years with the USDA, Neis admits, she’s never shut down any breeder. But she says her reports have pushed some to get out of the business.
But do they really get out? Tammy Kautzer was a notorious puppy miller in Clark County who was the subject of a 2007 undercover investigation by WTMJ-TV that caught her selling a sick 4-week-old puppy. She subsequently dropped her USDA license. Now unregulated, she told Schemberger she currently sells puppies over the Internet and via ads placed in Madison, and gets “$300 a puppy, instead of the $100 or $200 brokers paid” when she was a USDA breeder.
“Most of the people who have the really bad kennels stay out of sight and don’t let anyone on their property,” Havens says.
In Pennsylvania, state inspection reports are posted on the Internet, but in Wisconsin, even Neis’ reports, which are public record, are not readily available. Milwaukee Magazine repeatedly asked Neis and the USDA for records showing the 10 Wisconsin dog breeders most often cited for USDA violations in September. They still haven’t responded.
On July 24, 2008, an Amish dog breeder in Pennsylvania named Elmer Zimmerman used his .22-caliber rifle to kill the 70 cocker spaniels, poodles and Shih Tzus he owned. Then he threw them onto a compost pile. His brother, Ammon Zimmerman, who operated his own kennel next door, shot his 10 dogs, too.
The Zimmermans did that at least partly in reaction to the increasing pressure on puppy mills in Pennsylvania. Elmer called state enforcement agents (who had offered to have the Humane Society take his dogs) and said, “You don’t have to worry about these dogs anymore.”
The shooting incensed people across the state, dramatizing the need for better protection of puppies, says Jessie Smith, Pennsylvania’s special deputy secretary of dog law enforcement. “It was proof there are commercial kennel owners who really don’t care about their dogs.”
Under Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat first elected in 2002, the state had been gradually tightening oversight. His family has two golden retrievers, including Maggie, a breeder dog he adopted.
Rendell had fired all 14 members of the state Dog Law Advisory Board and appointed new ones. He created six new enforcement positions, including a special prosecutor and “a SWAT team” to prosecute animal cruelty laws. The number of citations issued against Pennsylvania dog breeders increased 500 percent in 2007. The state revoked the licenses of 21 breeders, says Smith.
Kennels with more than 25 dogs were already inspected, but Rendell proposed tough regulations to catch parts of the industry slipping through the cracks – like Internet sellers. In reaction to the Zimmerman dog massacre, more than 16,000 calls and letters flooded in to support Rendell’s bill. It passed both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature unanimously. On Oct. 10, 2008, with his dog Maggie by his side, the governor signed the nation’s toughest dog protection bill into law.
The situation in Wisconsin could hardly be more different. State statutes address crimes against animals, but do not define what constitutes “cruel” treatment, nor what is “adequate” and “sufficient” food, water, shelter, space or sanitation. That makes prosecution difficult, so law enforcement gets involved in only the most egregious abuse cases, says Lewis.
In 2001, outrage over a WTMJ-TV investigation into Wisconsin puppy mills helped persuade legislators to pass a law regulating many pet breeders for the first time. The bill required the licensing of Wisconsin pet breeders who sell 25 or more dogs a year and created seven new state inspectors to enforce the standards. But Gov. Scott McCallum used his line-item veto to remove the penalties for violating the new standards, saying they were onerous to dog owners. He also vetoed higher dog license fees to fund the inspectors. Capitol insiders say McCallum caved in to a last-minute phone blitz by the Dog Federation of Wisconsin, which also pressured big Republican donors. (McCallum did not return our calls.)
The remainder of the bill was to take effect in February of 2004, but in 2003, Gov. Jim Doyle took an unprecedented constitutional step, using his partial-veto power to craft new wording in a budget bill that effectively repealed the earlier law regulating dog breeders. Citing the state’s deficit, he said there was no money to fund the inspections and regulation.
“It sent a terrible message to the state and the rest of the country,” says Elmbrook Humane Society’s Sumbry.
Chairing the joint finance committee, state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-Milwaukee) wrote the legislation into the next biennial budget, but Doyle vetoed the entire provision. Doyle spokesperson Carla Vigue says the budget provision “failed to provide penalties and [enforcement] funding.”
State Rep. Tom Lothian (R-Williams Bay) says funding should not be an issue. “My guess is most sellers of these dogs aren’t paying sales taxes and probably no income tax, so the increased tax collections and registration fees would offset enforcement costs.”
But another attempt to pass legislation also failed. “It was the hottest issue we’ve ever touched in the legislature,” says Lothian.
A key opponent was the Dog Federation of Wisconsin, a group that mostly represents dog owners in the state’s southeastern corner. The bill sought to cover breeders producing 25 or more dogs a year, but the Federation wanted only those selling more than 100 to be licensed, Lothian says.
Federation President Joy Brand is office manager at Great Lakes Rubber & Supply. She has three cocker spaniels and lives in Slinger. She has tried, and failed, to get Slinger officials to allow her to own more than the municipal limit of three dogs. Brand, say Capitol insiders, portrayed the bill’s backers as “animal rights wackos” who would next want to free all the dogs, cats and cows in the state. Brand wrote the West Bend Daily News to warn, “The legislation will affect YOU, the average dog owner.”
The Federation rallied more opposition: former state Sen. Bob Welch, now a lobbyist, representing state bear hunters; former DNR chief George Meyer, representing trappers and bird hunters; a sled dog owners group and others – all afraid of a slippery slope that would have every dog owner ultimately face licensing and inspections.
In October of 2007, arch-enemies Brand and Puppy Mill Project founder Eilene Ribbens joined a task force organized by state Sen. Steve Wieckert (R-Appleton) to draft compromise legislation. The group had so many stakeholders with so many different agendas that the proposed bill was an unwieldy 17 pages long and left little discretion to state inspectors.
The Federation hired Gary Goyke, a former legislator and top lobbyist perhaps best remembered for his 1990 conviction on four felony counts of money laundering campaign contributions to state legislators.
Goyke says the Federation’s members now agree that “existing USDA standards are not sufficient.” Yet the federation’s Web site continues to warn that tighter regulation of breeders poses a “real threat” to the rights of dog owners. “For Joy [Brand], it’s almost a constitutional issue,” Goyke says.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s lax laws continue to make it a beacon for the worst sort of puppy millers. Even Wallace Havens has come around to see the problem. Today, he still runs a breeders group and says he knows at least two puppy millers who moved here to escape Pennsylvania’s regulations. Their kennels are so bad, he says, he doesn’t want them in his group. “People like that give us a black eye,” he says. “They need to be regulated.”
A 9-year-old poodle named Baby has become the unofficial mascot of the U.S. Humane Society’s campaign against puppy mills. Baby was rescued just as a puppy mill was about to kill her, says Jana Kohl, the dog’s owner and author of A Rare Breed of Love, a 2008 book on puppy mills.
Kohl, an ex-Milwaukeean, is the niece of Sen. Herb Kohl. A psychologist, she worked for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies before adopting her new cause. Baby now accompanies Kohl on her speaking engagements, including to Milwaukee last summer. Baby lost a leg due to the effects of years spent in a cage without exercise. Her puppy mill owner also cut her vocal cords.
Kohl’s book features more than 60 celebrities photographed with Baby, including president-elect Barack Obama, seen holding Baby in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Obama has said he’d like to adopt a rescue dog when he gets his daughters a dog in the spring.
Kohl has had less luck convincing her uncle to address the out-of-date federal Animal Welfare Act law, she says. She also criticizes the laxness of Wisconsin’s regulatory laws.
How to Buy a Dog
If 90 percent or more of dogs sold at pet stores come from puppy mills, where can consumers turn? First off, don’t buy on impulse from a shop or Internet site that you know nothing about. You may end up with a sick or badly bred dog, huge vet bills and perhaps a broken heart if the puppy dies.
Second, do your homework. Read about different breeds so that you find one compatible with your lifestyle.
Third, contact one of Wisconsin’s many rescue groups, which offer dogs that have been vetted, spayed and neutered for adoption. But be careful – some may not be what they claim. The best are members of the Alliance of Wisconsin Animal Rehoming Enterprises (AWARE), whose Web site is aware-wi.com. Many are also listed on petfinder.com, as are numerous humane societies filled with dogs waiting for a good home.
What if you still don’t find the dog or particular breed you want? Oconomowoc veterinarian John Hallett then recommends going to dog shows, like those held at State Fair Park, and talking to people who show the breed that interests you. Ask them to recommend good, conscientious, reputable breeders, Hallett says. “Visit the kennels yourself and see how the dogs are cared for and whether they get plenty of human contact.”
Hallett says it’s impossible to tell what a puppy’s temperament will be like without seeing its parents, and conscientious breeders will be glad to show them to you. You’ll also want to know that the parents have been prescreened to avoid genetic defects common in a breed, typically eye and hip disorders.
Most conscientious breeders will require you to sign a contract agreeing to have the dog spayed or neutered. They may also require the buyer to return the dog to them if they do not keep it for any reason – even years in the future. “Good breeders really care about their dogs and where they go,” Hallett adds.
The public perception is that puppies with papers are higher quality, but there are now about a dozen dog registries, and even the most reputable, the American Kennel Club (AKC), says papers do not indicate quality, merely that a particular puppy’s parents were of a specific breed.
How to Reach Public Officials
Our “Puppy Hell” article was barely out to subscribers when we were hit with e-mails and phone calls asking for help reaching state policy makers. The following Web site provides a tool for identifying your legislators and provides contact information:
Mary Van de Kamp Nohl is a former senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at